February 11, 1864: How Yankees are taught to shoot.

Two union soldiers

A wonderful article from the Charleston Mercury, so loaded with subtexts that it is about to sink under its own weight. The bare facts are probably fairly accurate, but they are wrapped in layers of connotation. First, of course, the natural valor and familiarity with arms of the southern man is a given, in contrast to the northerner’s ignorance of the manly arts. Next, we see that northerners, unlike the proud southerners, are basically sheep — they can be taught anything, and they are more “obedient” and “easily managed” (no doubt also unmanly qualities). The “lost cause” argument of the superior numbers of the north is mentioned in passing.

Then we see the laughable stages of education of the northern man — he “snaps caps until he can do so without winking”, then he fires blanks, “flinching and shutting his eyes,” and finally learns to shoot. Then he’s taught to judge distances. “And here is the secret of the death of so many of our officers,” which also seems a jab at the ungentlemanly practice of common soldiers shooting at their betters.


CHARLESTON MERCURY, February 11, 1864, p. 1, c. 2
What General Scott Said–How Yankees are Taught to Shoot.
The Richmond correspondent of the Mobile Register, remarks that old Winfield Scott is stated to have said that the South would have it all its own way during the first year of the war, but after that the greater teachability of the Northern masses would manifest itself in superior discipline, and each succeeding year of the war would make the fighting qualities of the two people more and more equal, until in the end the discipline and numbers of the North would prove more than a match for the valor of the South, and thus, in time, the triumph of the former would be sure. McClellan, in taking supreme command, acted in accordance with Scott’s ideas. For six months he lay in front of Washington, organizing and drilling his army of 200,000 men. Northern papers abused him, but he adhered firmly to his purpose. Southern papers laughed at his sham battles, but they had a meaning. The battle of Williamsburg showed how greatly the Yankee soldier had improved in steadiness since the rout at Manassas. As time wears on we see that the Yankee approximates the Southern soldier in fighting qualities, is more obedient, and more easily managed. But, what is most remarkable, the Yankee is now a good shot. How is this miracle wrought? Easily enough. A sand bag is placed in a tripod, and on the bag a gun is laid. The raw Yankee is brought up to this gun, and made to snap caps until he can do so without winking. Next he fires blank cartridges until he stops flinching and shutting his eyes. When he is no longer afraid of a gun, he is taught to take aim and fire from a rest, and then off-hand. After this comes the important business of teaching to fire at long range. This is done by placing a number of men at intervals of fifty yards until the extreme range of modern weapons is attained. The recruit is made to examine each of these men carefully, to ascertain, by the visibility of certain accoutrements and the form of the body, what can and what cannot be seen at certain distances. He soon learns to elevate his sights in accordance with the greater or less clearness of certain objects, and can tell with wonderful accuracy the distance of these objects.–And here is the secret of the death of so many of our officers. 

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